Decriminalizing Hard Drugs Isn’t Nearly Enough to End the War on Drugs

British Columbia’s decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of hard drugs is a good first step in our fight against the opioid crisis. But it does not go far enough — we need universal decriminalization, high possession thresholds, and safe supply.

A man holds 3.5 grams of fentanyl in his hand in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver, British Columbia. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Last week, British Columbia received federal approval to decriminalize the possession of 2.5 grams or less of a handful of so-called hard drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine, and fentanyl. The policy change will go into effect at the end of January 2023 — years after the province applied to Health Canada for the exemption. The application was driven by British Columbia (BC)’s extraordinary drug poisoning crisis, which has claimed thousands of lives and has been on the rise in recent years — a crisis that persists throughout the entire country. The exemption also follows a growing, evidence-based consensus that current mitigation policies — policing and the criminal justice system — are ineffective. This may be too generous a reading. Thus far, drug control measures have actually been counterproductive in addressing drug use.

The policy shift was met with mixed reviews. There’s no need to review the opposition from the “war on drugs” advocates. That species of hopeless and superannuated thinking hearkens back to a deadly, anti-science, failed policy — criminalizing people who use drugs doesn’t work, full stop. War on drugs folks are ideologues hung up on Reagan-era sloganeering. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re the sort who’ll typically support alcohol and tobacco consumption — despite their well-documented deadly effects — while condemning those who use different sorts of drugs. To hell with them. What we ought to pay attention to is the response from community advocates.

Garth Mullins is an advisor to BC on drug policy and a drug user advocate. A self-described “old school dope fiend,” Mullins has reviewed the decriminalization announcement and is not pumping his fist to the sky. He’s been working on this issue since the late 1990s and says the 2.5-gram limit is insufficient — better geared to 1998 than 2022. That’s because the drugs on offer have changed; today, users require, and thus carry, more. It should be up to drug users to decide on the threshold, he says. They know best. Instead, it sounds like police decided.

On CBC’s The Early Edition, Mullins talked about his work advising on the decision, noting that while users and advocates fought for a higher limit, police wanted a one-gram threshold and mandatory treatment. Lower thresholds are grounds for more police in people’s lives, more criminalization, more stigma, more secret drug use, and more deaths. While decriminalization could, in theory, get police out of the lives of drug users, Mullins says the current threshold will ensure that “a lot of people won’t get decriminalized. People who are most criminalized, with bigger habits, won’t get decriminalized.” He’s right.

What BC and Canada need is widespread decriminalization with an eye toward legalization. The country needs more supervised consumption sites and a safe supply. The drug war must end. It’s a failure. A costly, deadly failure. According to research published by the Library of Parliament, “Almost 23,000 Canadians died due to apparent opioid toxicity between January 2016 and March 2021.” Safe supply, de-policing, and supervised consumption sites save lives by reducing stigma, ensuring drugs aren’t poisoned, and keeping the state from driving drug use into unsafe, potentially deadly spaces. Additionally, it keeps drug users out of a criminal justice system that tears their lives and communities apart.

In the wake of BC’s decriminalization announcement, the Justin Trudeau government was quick to signal its lack of interest in saving lives across the country by failing to apply the same policy across broader jurisdictions. As Justice Minister David Lametti put it, “There isn’t at this stage any larger discussion on decriminalization.” The same day, the House of Commons defeated a private member’s bill sponsored by New Democratic Party MP Gord Johns that proposed national decriminalization. Perhaps the Liberals want to conduct some more study of the idea — as if it isn’t already clear what needs to be done.

The HIV Legal Network and British Columbia Civil Liberties Association were quick to criticize the BC exemption for its limitations and echo the call for national decriminalization. As I’ve noted elsewhere, others who support full decriminalization include the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the country’s police chiefs, a plethora of experts, and the Liberal Party of Canada itself.

Other than cannabis, which his government legalized in 2018, Justin Trudeau is conservative on the issue of drugs. In the past, he’s made that clear, telling journalist Sam Fenn, “I disagree with loosening any of the prohibition on harder drugs.” His government also seems afraid of its own bureaucracy, caucus, the police, and the public when it comes to decriminalization. This position is a particularly baffling, gutless, and cruel stance given that nearly 60 percent of the country supports the decriminalization of all drugs.

Canada must adopt a national policy of drug decriminalization with thresholds guided by drug users, advocates, and health experts — not tepid bureaucrats, career politicians, and police. The Trudeau government routinely says it cares about evidence-based policymaking. But when they sit back and let people die while leaving the right decision sitting on the shelf, their purported commitment to common sense strains credulity. While the BC exemption will help some — and perhaps serve as a proof of concept for something we already know works — it’s not nearly enough. The same holds true for safe supply pilot programs. These lifesaving policies shouldn’t be trotted out as stopgap measures and promises of future endeavors — they need immediate, universal implementation.

As Mullins says of better drug policy, “Governments, whether it’s Canada or BC, are taking this in such small bites. And every time we let another month pass or have another small bite or pilot project or increment, all the deaths continue.” That deadly dithering could end if the Trudeau government would find the courage to do the right — and popular — thing. Ending the war on drugs and drug users nationally is the fastest and most comprehensive measure we can take to save lives. Full decriminalization with an eye to legalization, safe supply, de-policing drug use, and safe consumption sites are policies that work. Canada shouldn’t waste another moment, or life, waiting to do the right thing.